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Top universities use ‘gig-economy’ employment practices for researchers – union

Leading universities in the UK are using “gig-economy” employment practices for staff in their research departments, a union has warned.

Two in three research-only staff in UK universities are employed on fixed-term contracts – a figure which has changed little in the last decade, a report by the University and College Union (UCU) has found.

The figure is even higher at some of the universities in the Russell Group, which includes some of the most prestigious and research-intensive UK institutions, data has suggested.

The union’s analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) staff data for 2021/22 showed that 88% of research-only staff at the University of Oxford were employed on fixed-term contracts.

A number of Russell Group universities had a high proportion of research-only staff employed on fixed-term contracts – including King’s College London (96%), the London School of Economics (96%) and the University of Manchester (80%).

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said the report shines a light on the “widespread use of gig-economy style short-term contracts” for staff working in university research departments.

The UCU report warned that insecure employment can affect the mental health of staff and make long-term decision planning difficult.

It added that “endemic casualisation” can have a negative impact on research culture, affecting research activity, research integrity and academic freedom.

The UCU sent freedom of information (FoI) requests to 103 UK higher education institutions that employ at least 20 research-only staff and/or where research staff made up at least 5% of the academic staff.

Industrial strike
Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said universities needed to commit to reducing the use of fixed term contracts and move their research staff to ‘genuinely secure’ contracts (Liam McBurney/PA)

The FoI, sent in May, asked questions about the employment of research-only staff – including whether researchers are successfully redeployed at the end of their contract, and whether enhanced redundancy pay is offered to staff who are dismissed at the end of their fixed-term contract.

The UCU report used the FOI responses and HESA data on research staff terms of employment to score institutions out of 100 on their level of support for researchers to tackle insecure employment.

In the league table produced by the union only eight universities were given a score above 50, whereas 39 universities received a score of less than 30.

Dr Grady said: “This report shines a light on an area that universities would rather keep shrouded in darkness. Namely the widespread use of gig-economy style short-term contracts for the staff who prop up university research departments.

“The poor scores across the board on areas like fixed-term contracts, proper redeployment processes and decent redundancy provision speaks of a sector that urgently needs to update its attitudes to employment practices.

“Critically, the worst practices are not confined, as one might expect, to the least financially secure institutions. Far from it: five of the 24 Russell Group universities are in the bottom half of the table. At Oxford, for example, a staggering 88% of research staff are employed on a fixed-term contract.”

She added: “Universities need to work with UCU towards a more sustainable model for the employment of research staff. They need to commit to reducing the use of fixed term contracts and move their research staff to genuinely secure contracts.

“And they need to put systems in place that support continuity of employment and minimise the risk of redundancy at the end of funded research projects.”

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), said: “HESA’s staff record is always a valuable resource for monitoring developments in the sector workforce. It provides coverage of academic staff across all providers and thus provides definitive information about the sector as a whole.

“The latest data regarding contract types shows that, across the sector as a whole, 70% of academic staff are on permanent contracts, up from 67% in 2021-22.

“HE institutions use small numbers of flexible contracts for research staff which are usually linked to external funding awards. The employment arrangements within autonomous universities are for institutional-level discussions.”

A spokesperson for London School of Economics (LSE) said: “We are working closely with the union on their proposals to reduce any unnecessary use of fixed term and hourly paid roles, and to improve the experience of staff who are in such roles.

“We do not, however, agree with the picture this report paints, which covers significantly varied roles across research and teaching.”

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: “We are aware of staff concerns about the use of fixed-term contracts in some areas, particularly those supported by short-term sources of external funding.

“Our current university-wide pay and conditions review is exploring these arrangements and considering approaches that might be taken to reduce the percentage of staff on fixed-term contracts.”